Rural India remains a society where the subjugation of women by men is taken for granted. Even before birth women suffer discrimination. It’s illegal but sex-selective abortion is widespread and boy-girl ratios are skewed in many villages. With arranged marriage domination passes from father to husband. In work, women’s pay is half that of men. In the home, domestic violence is common. Despite awareness of HIV, women are often unable to negotiate safe sex. In local politics men seek control; even when women are elected to office, husbands may try to supplant them.

Can such oppressed women do anything to help themselves? They can, through the simple idea of joining together into self-help groups.

What is a self-help group?

A self-help group has 15-20 members who each save a small amount each month. The group then makes loans to members out of the pooled savings. Escaping the high interest loans of moneylenders makes a big difference to women’s incomes. Banks will lend to groups so their members can start micro-enterprises and boost their income further. The groups have collective strength such as petitioning local authorities to install a pump for safe drinking water or pressing the police to act in cases of domestic violence.

The groups meet twice a month – once for savings, once for social issues. They elect a leader and an accountant, and, crucially, join a federation.

What is a federation?

A federation is an organisation of women’s leaders representing around 100 self-help groups in a locality. Federations can start new groups, bolster weaker groups, run community enterprises, organise mass direct action, and employ their own staff, such as micro-enterprise advisers. They enable women to escape poverty and oppression. In Theni district most of the federations have banded together to form a district-wide women’s movement that coordinates campaigns and supports the federations.

VST and its partners have been working with self-help groups for more than 10 years, forming them and training their members on micro-enterprise, HIV, TB, domestic violence, gender rights, political action and how to use the law.

Our big ambition

To forge the federations into independent, self-sustaining bodies, able to confront poverty and injustice for the long term. By themselves. Imagine … poor, uneducated, village women of humble origin running their own substantial organisation, supporting hundreds of tiny businesses, dealing confidently with bank managers, government officers, police inspectors. That’s the power of self-help groups.

Combating violence against women

The high profile rape and murder of a young student in Delhi in December 2012 stimulated much debate about the subordination of women in Indian society. The media attention paid to this single case, however, represents the tip of an iceberg which permeates across class, caste, ethnicity and region. Some of the most brutal manifestations of this gender violence are perpetrated behind closed doors. These are often the most clandestine yet most routine of the indignities that women suffer on a daily basis.

We work to inform women of their rights to address violence against them through legal action and by bringing issues to the attention of women’s federations and village anti-violence committees. We train federations and committees so that they can address domestic violence and other forms of violence such as sex selective abortion, dowry demands and child marriage. We have even trained police and justice officials to raise the profile of women’s rights and the laws that can protect them.

By bringing these issues out into the open, we work to ensure that perpetrators of violence against women recognise that their actions are neither legally, nor culturally, acceptable.

Case study: Kaliarsy

Life as a woman